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Public shouldn't fund teachers' union activities

By Benjamin DeGrow

Recent revelations surrounding the alleged misuse of public school funds by a union leader shed light on a deeper problem. School officials should not release control of taxpayer funds to a private organization.

The scandal has brought to light School District 11’s misguided policy, which handed over the keys of a designated public fund to the Colorado Springs Education Association.

District 11’s Professional Growth and Development (PROGRAD) Fund is supposed to cover expenses for teachers to enhance their instructional skills at conferences and workshops. The district’s current negotiated union agreement gives CSEA the responsibility to manage the fund, with the entire committee made up of members appointed by the CSEA president.

Some of the $43,000-a-year fund appears to have been used for inappropriate purposes. A complaint filed in April led to an internal district investigation that found evidence of forgery, fraud, and improper distribution of funds.

A PROGRAD application in CSEA president Irma Valerio-Garcia’s name contained an unidentified forged signature. She also apparently received $1,000 from PROGRAD to cover expenses for a trip already financed by union money, according to a source within the union.

At the district’s request CSEA reimbursed the $1,000, but District 11 chief financial officer Glenn Gustafson has asked for an additional repayment. CSEA vice president Mark Hampson received $326 for expenses incurred at a Baltimore conference that Gustafson deemed to be “of a political nature.”

No matter what anyone’s good intentions were, the apparent financial mismanagement should give taxpayers serious concern about the policy.

An email circulating among District 11 teachers suggests that financial improprieties also were made with union money. Accusations have been made that Valerio-Garcia overdrew from her expense account, spent thousands of dollars without proper authorization, and forced CSEA to dip into its savings. The CSEA Board of Directors asked Valerio-Garcia to step down. Her resignation will be effective July 7.

Without CSEA being given oversight of the PROGRAD money, the alleged misdeeds would have been limited to the union’s private sphere. They would not have affected the integrity of money designated by taxpayers to aid students.

Regardless of the alleged improprieties, entrusting oversight of public funds to a private organization was an inappropriate arrangement. Nor is the problem isolated to Colorado Springs.

In Grand Junction’s Mesa Valley School District, a Teacher Professional Leave Panel (TPLP) oversees teacher requests for professional leave days. Five of the Panel’s six members are appointed by the local union.

Mesa Valley has a couple small safeguards that District 11 does not have. A district administrator serves on the Panel, and all leave requests must be approved by the building principal before reaching the TPLP. Yet a private organization still owns most of the clout over the use of professional leave days. The deference that gives unions such latitude over public funds or personnel time should be re-examined.

To make the situation worse, taxpayer funds already are used to underwrite union activities. District 11’s bargaining contract with the union obligates the district to pay one-fourth of the CSEA president’s base salary ($68,000 in 2006-07). Yet Valerio-Garcia is on full-time leave from the classroom to serve as CSEA president. Next year the same privilege will belong to Hampson, her presumed successor.

Regardless of a union president’s discretion with internal funds, there’s no way taxpayers should bear any responsibility for her salary. Union interests often are at odds with the interests of the district, of its students, and even of some teachers.

As private organizations, teachers unions are free and able to finance their activities with their own money on their own time. But taxpayer subsidies of union activities are simply indefensible.

District 11 negotiators have decided to pull the plug on the PROGRAD Fund this year. Perhaps their next goal should be to stop financing the CSEA president’s release time.

Let the money fund the kids, not the union bank account.

This article originally appeared in The Colorado Springs Gazette on May 30, 2007.